Representatives from two branches of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) heard complaints ranging from the annoyance caused by low-flying helicopters to charges that Border Patrol agents are not friendly enough at a public meeting held at Blaine high school’s performing arts center Wednesday, February 16.
About 200 people filled the PAC’s seats to listen to agents from the Border Patrol (green uniforms) and the Office of Air and Marine (tan uniforms) address concerns from the public about how the two agencies interact with those who live near the U.S./Canadian border.
Border Patrol Blaine sector chief John Bates said part of the Border Patrol’s job is to be ambassadors to the community. He assured the crowd that he as the boss of the Border Patrol agents in the area will do his best to improve their rapport with residents; even suggesting more public meetings will be planned for the future.
“Border residents are the second set of eyes and ears for the Border Patrol,” Bates said.
Bates said 322 Border Patrol agents patrol the Blaine sector, which encompasses Oregon, western Washington and Alaska.
The crowd was respectful of the agents there and offered applause after audience comments that both complimented and criticized the Border Patrol.
The main issues that kept popping up were concerns over what Border Patrol agents could and could not do on private property and the feelings of intimidation and fear most residents claimed they felt because of the agents’ constant presence.
Bates clarified Border Patrol’s role on private property, saying agents could step onto private lands within 25 miles of the border if it’s part of a specific mission, but not enter homes or barns without permission. Bates said landowners could get in touch with him directly and file a complaint if they feel agents have damaged their property.
Rainbow, a Maple Falls woman, said her community is becoming increasingly alarmed over the ever-presence of Border Patrol agents around their homes. She said Bates and other CBP chiefs do not seem to be aware of the feelings their agents are generating.
“I’m becoming more afraid of the Border Patrol guys than the bad guys,” Rainbow said. “We are not criminals, were are your community.”
Other residents complained about Border Patrol cars sitting in the same place for hours at a time. A Custer woman said she is tired of the culture of fear constant surveillance by federal agencies is producing.
“I want respect,” she said drawing applause from the crowd. “I refuse to live in fear.”
Bates said he was glad these concerns were being raised and that residents need to contact him or his deputy chief if they feel intimidated. He said the only way he as an administrator can deal with these problems is if people tell him about them.
In the interests of providing more information to the public, Bates indicated he would be willing to provide weekly summaries of Border Patrol activities to local newspapers.
“We have no secrets,” Bates said.
Another common complaint was how low CBP helicopters seem to fly, with some residents saying sometimes they hover no more than 50 to100 feet above their homes. Office of Air and Marine chief Keith Powell said residents should contact him with these concerns because his helicopters are not supposed to fly that low unless it’s vital to a mission.
“We try to fly as neighborly as possible,” Powell said. “You are a valued community to us.”
Members of local law enforcement, including county sheriff Bill Elfo and Blaine police chief Mike Haslip, backed Powell up, saying CBP helicopters often assist in operations ranging from finding fleeing suspects to searching for missing persons. Elfo said having a helicopter at the disposal of the sheriff’s department is priceless.
“We go out of the way to support our partners, they go out of the way to support us,” Powell said.
Powell said the Office of Air and Marine’s 22 pilots clocked 2,500 flight hours last year, but was unable to point out any specific instances of apprehending suspected terrorists when asked by a local resident.
Though the CBP representatives tried to deal with all concerns, some issues the agents did not address were the recent Government Accountability Office report on the status of the northern border, the Wayne Groen case, and problems with driving through the border crossings.
Despite the restrictions border officials had placed on discussing the Groen case, some residents could not help bring him up. Groen, of Lynden, faces up to 40 years in prison if he is convicted of interfering with a CBP helicopter by shining a high-powered flashlight at it during a nighttime flight. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial begins March 15.
For questions or complaints, contact the Border Patrol Blaine sector headquarters at 360/332-1721 or the Office of Air and Marine at 360/410-0301.
Suspicious activity on the border can also be reported to those numbers, or by calling 911.